Now Playing: Idea Man
The first time I met Mary L I was in The Food Box Café eating an egg salad sandwich. We had seen each other around town several times so we nodded, said hello and then introduced ourselves. She had a pile of brown, frizzy hair on her head, unnaturally bright grey eyes that didn’t look as if they worked well together, thin lips that usually curved down and the shallow cheeks of one who doesn’t eat enough. She wore clothes that looked as if they had been made from the covers of old brown sofas. Her feet were in sandals even though the weather was cold and damp. I placed her in her 40s but gave myself a margin of error of ten years either way.
Looking at me with unblinking eyes she wasted no time telling me the dramatic circumstances of her life.
“The flying saucers come to my house every night, James. They really do. I wake up and there they are. They must use some kind of electromagnetic pulse because my electricity goes out and I can’t call the police. They take me to Vietnam, James. They really do. And I’m tortured there. Every night. They use electrodes on me. I have to watch sex movies. The government won’t do anything. All they do is spy on me. They really do.”
This increasingly one-sided conversation went on for several more minutes before she shambled out with a large Styrofoam cup of coffee in her hand. Two years after getting married my wife and I ran into her one day on the street.
“I finally know what to do, James,” she said.
“What’s that, Mary?” I said.
“I have to defeat the Devil.”
That night, after dinner, I put dishes and cups into the dishwasher and thought about defeating the Devil. Could the world exist without evil? To me it seemed like trying to bake a cookie with only one side. And freed from suffering, what would we do with all the free time? Maybe, I thought, a few disasters here and there build character. At the very least they give us a chance to act heroically. I called out to my wife that I was going out to check on Lewis.
Lewis lives in a tiny one bedroom house on our property. In exchange for rent he helps with mowing the lawn, weeding and other routine chores. He calls himself an idea man, a once influential consultant and advisor to politicians, celebrities and Fortune 500 executives; but for the past several years he has fallen on hard times and lives nearly penniless, with only the clothes on his back and pictures clipped from newspapers and magazines of him next to Bernie Madoff, Jack Abramoff, Bill Cosby and other luminaries.
“You want something to eat?” I said as I knocked.
He told me to come in, saying that he had Chinese. That’s his euphemism for dumpster diving.
We talked for a few minutes and then I asked him if he had any plans for the next day. He sat hunched over on a wooden chair wearing nothing but an old tattered cape that looked as if it had come from the stock room of a community theater. His pale, slack face was unshaven and he looked emaciated. Dirty grey hair hung down nearly to his shoulders. I could hear tired, congested lungs work as he smoked an unfiltered cigarette from a red, crumpled pack.
“Yeah,” he said, staring down at the whirring electric heater I let him use. “Guy in Oregon. Got something seriously wrong upstairs I figure. Gonna do the ‘ole instant shotgun divorce thing with his family-nothing much new or exciting there-only gets interesting when he decides to chew ‘em to bits with a chainsaw. I guess movies help if you don’t have much of an imagination. And a woman in Sidney gonna leave her husband and three kids to run off with a feller who sells tropical fish so she can swindle him out of his money and leave his body in the trunk of his car. I know, small potatoes but I’ve slid down the ladder and landed on my butt enough times to know that when you’ve hit bottom you gotta start somewhere.”
“Okay,” I said. “Sounds good. Think you’re up to it?”
“Oh,” he said, lighting another cigarette with a snap of his long, knobby fingers.
“Don’t you worry about me, Sonny Jim.”